The Chinese-born supermodel China Machado (1929–2016) was the first non-white woman to be featured in the fashion pages of an American magazine. Fresh from the top runways of Paris, the glamorous Machado appeared in Richard Avedon's fashion spreads for the February 1959 issue of Harper's Bazaar, generating controversy due to her race.
China Machado had an eventful life, beginning with a multiracial upbringing in China and a flight from that country just ahead of its takeover by communist armies during the Chinese Civil War of 1949. She became prominent in the West through chance events—a torrid romance with a top Spanish bullfighter, a lucky emergence as a top Parisian catwalk model, and an association with fashion photographer Richard Avedon. In the 1950s, both fashion runways and the pages of fashion magazines were exclusively populated by women of Anglo-European backgrounds. Yet Machado, with her poise, presence of mind, and exotic good looks, overcame that barrier and forged a successful career in the fashion publishing industry. When she reemerged as a model in her later years, she marked another first.
China (pronounced “CHEE-na”) Machado was born Noelie de Souza (or Dasouza) Machado on December 25, 1929, in Shanghai, China. Her father was a Portuguese gold trader who lived in Hong Kong and there met her mother, whose family had emigrated there from the Goa region of India. “I don't say I'm a half this or a quarter that,” Machado later told Jada Yuan of New York magazine, “because I could be anything, really.” She grew up in the French Concession, an affluent expatriate neighborhood in Shanghai, where she spoke Portuguese at home, French in the neighborhood, and Chinese to the family's servants. (She eventually mastered seven languages, including English.) At the time, Machado had no interest in modeling. As non-whites, “We had no images,” she told Yuan. “We had nothing that told us we were nice looking. Nothing. So I didn't think of myself as good-looking at all. It never occurred to me.”
The Machado family's comfortable lifestyle ended in the spring of 1949, when Shanghai became menaced by Chinese communists. Learning that Shanghai's National Revolutionary Army was preparing to repel an advance of China's People's Liberation Army, Machado's mother sewed gold nuggets into the clothes of her four children and the family fled, boarding a ship for New York City. When they arrived, the U.S. immigration quota for Chinese had been reached and they were refused entry. They then sailed to South America, where they spent time in both Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Lima, Peru. In these Latin countries, Machado heard the epithet “China” being used to denigrate girls of rural origins, and she took it as her surname, feeling that Noelie had too much of a Christmas sound to it. She also worked briefly as a flight attendant for Pan American Airlines, using her brother's home in Lima as a base.
Still estranged from her family, Machado moved in 1954 to Paris, where she met and fell in love with American actor Martin LaSalle and experienced the first successes of her modeling career. Mistaken by designer Hubert de Givenchy for a substitute requested to replace an ailing model, she was thrust out onto a fashion runway with no preparation—and excelled. The next day, Machado was invited to join the Givenchy firm. With her unique look, she soon added the Dior and Balenciaga companies to her employment roster and became one of Europe's best-paid runway models, reportedly earning as much as £1,000 (English) per day.
After a break up during which she had a year-long affair with actor William Holden, Machado and LaSalle married and had two daughters, Blanche and Emmanuelle, before divorcing in 1965. Meanwhile, in 1958, she moved to New York City and quickly found the city's fashion pulse. After she met and befriended Diana Vreeland, editor of the fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar, Vreeland placed her in a fashion show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Machado opened the program wearing Balenciaga-designed hot pink pajamas and standing atop a 20-foot ladder. It was Vreeland who introduced Machado to photographer Richard Avedon, who immediately booked her for a session and asked her to work with him exclusively.
Machado's 1958 appearance on a runway for the Oleg Cassini firm generated controversy after store buyers located in the racially segregated U.S. South, under the impression that Machado was African American, refusing to accept any of the dresses she had worn. The controversy intensified when Harper's Bazaar made plans to publish Avedon's photos of Machado in its February 1959 issue. “The publishers were saying, ‘We can't put this girl in the magazine. Everyone in the South will quit subscriptions and no one will want to advertise with us!,’” Machado recalled during her Into the Gloss interview. The photographs ran as scheduled after Avedon threatened to stop working for the magazine, making Machado the first nonwhite model to appear in a prominent U.S. fashion magazine. Although some sources stated that she appeared on the cover, Machado's daughter Emmanuelle stated that Machado was not the cover model.
Machado worked with Avedon for four more years, producing various eye-catching fashion shots for Harper's Bazaar. In 1961, she was the first model to appear in the magazine nude, and she appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in 1971. In 1962, Machado became fashion editor (later moving to senior fashion editor and then fashion director) at Harper's Bazaar, although she protested that she did not even know how to type. One of the famous photo sessions she organized on the other side of the camera was for actress Elizabeth Taylor. “She had this big head, this big chest and two little legs that came out at the bottom—she looked like a robin,” Machado recalled to Bridget Foley of W magazine. “[But] put her in front of a camera, make her up, and suddenly there was magic.” She continued to work with Avedon in her capacity as fashion editor and director; another of her famous photo spreads featured actress Judy Garland.
Remaining with Harper's Bazaar for 11 years, Machado left to become an independent fashion producer in 1972, designing costumes, producing television fashion shows, and launching a line of knitwear for women. In 1988, she joined the staff of Lear's, a magazine for women over age 35, as fashion director. She moved from New York City to Long Island, and opened a shop called Country Bazaar in Water Mill, New York. She also settled into a country home in Sag Harbor that she decorated herself with, among other features, a giant living-room mural of China's Yangtze River that she executed herself beginning the day of Avedon's death. In 2003, Machado married Riccardo Rosa, her longtime companion.
In 2011, at age 81, Machado signed a new modeling contract with the IMG agency. “First of all, she's legendary,” IMG head Ivan Bart told CNN. She is “this amazing woman who has given so much to the fashion industry … and also, oh, by the way, she happens to be in her 80s. How inspirational is that for any woman of any age?” Machado turned down $10,000 for a catwalk appearance, but she was featured in a 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
“I've never dieted, never exercised, I eat like a pig, and I drink—mainly vodka,” Machado once confided to Mulkerrins. “I still smoke, too.” In her last years, she was at work on an autobiography, I Was Always Running after the Laughter. Although a first draft was finished and submitted to her publisher, the book remained incomplete at the time of Machado's death on December 18, 2016, at a hospital in Stony Brook, New York.
International New York Times, December 19, 2016, Vanessa Friedman, “Breakthrough Model until the End, Dies at 86.”
Observer (London, England), October 2, 2011, Jada Yuan, “Avedon's Muse,” p. 20.
CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/21/living/model-china-machado (October 21, 2011), Mairi Mackay, “China Machado, the Woman Signed as a Model at 81.”
Harper's Bazaar, http://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/news/a19472/model-china-machado-dies/ (November 1, 2017), Kayleigh Roberts, “Model China Machado Has Passed Away.”
Into the Gloss, https://intothegloss.com/2014/02/china-machado-model/ (November 21, 2013), interview with Machado.
New York, http://nymag.com/fashion/11/fall/china-machado/ (November 1, 2017), Jada Yuan, “‘I Didn't Think of Myself as Good-Looking at All.’”
Telegraph (London, England), http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG9899911/China-Machado-on-herfabulous-life.html (March 5, 2013), Jane Mulkerrins, “China Machado on Her Fabulous Life.”
Women's Wear Daily, https://www.wmagazine.com/story/china-machado (March 1, 2010), Bridget Foley, “China Machado Looks Back on a Groundbreaking, Glamorous Life and Career.”□